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The Military Grip on US Policing

Alex Constantine - August 10, 2013

8 August 2013

US domestic law enforcement finds one reason after another to adopt military tactics and tougher approaches to enforce civilian 'security'. What are they - and what's next? Scenes of tear gas and masses of police in riot gear clashing with demonstrators in American streets during the Occupy protests of 2011 and 2012 prompted a national debate about the militarization of law enforcement. As police deployed tear gas, tasers and, in some cases, Armoured Personnel Carriers against largely peaceful protesters, many wondered when police in the United States had evolved to the point where they more closely resembled front-line combat troops rather than the beat cop that still holds a prominent place in the American popular imagination. In June of this year, the American Civil Liberties Union announced a national investigation into the militarization of police in 23 states.

The truth is that the militarization of law enforcement has been underway for roughly half a century in the United States, dating back to Civil Rights-era riots and disturbances in the country's inner cities. Since then, such tactics have migrated to other countries in the form of training for counter-narcotics and policing strategies, and lucrative contracts for crowd control munitions such as tear gas. Combined Systems, Inc, a Jamestown, Pennsylvania company, manufactures military-grade crowd control munitions, such as tear gas and CS gas, that were brought into the spotlight when Arab Spring protesters in Bahrain and Egypt called attention to the use of American-manufactured equipment against peaceful protesters.

SWAT teams – the Special Weapons and Tactics paramilitary police units used for ‘high-risk’ operations including hostage and barricaded suspect situations, equipped with body armour, high-powered rifles and heavy vehicles – were developed during the mid-1960s in the Central Valley town of Delano, California in response to militant labour protests by farm labourers. The Los Angeles Police Department created its own SWAT unit in 1967, which gained national attention two years later during an intense, four-hour shootout with members of the LA Black Panthers at the BPP's Southern California headquarters.

By 1975, there were over 500 SWAT teams throughout the country. However, it was through President Richard Nixon’s notorious 'War on Drugs' that the migration of military technology and tactics to domestic law enforcement took off. A decade later in 1981, the U.S. Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act, which allowed the American military to cooperate with law enforcement in several different scenarios, including counter-narcotics operations, civil disturbances, special security operations and threats of terrorism.

As a result, police were given access to military-grade equipment, as well as accompanying training by armed forces personnel. By 1995, nearly 90 per cent of all American cities with more than 50,000 residents had a paramilitarized police unit.

The 1981 law represented a key moment in American history. Up to that point, a clear line separated the country's military and police through the Posse Comitatus Act, an 1878 law that prohibited the military from exercising law enforcement powers on non-federal property: in other words, the military could not be involved in domestic policing. Congress passed Posse Comitatus as an explicit response to the use of Union troops to occupy the former Confederate States of American following the end of the Civil War.

The erosion of this Reconstruction-era law paved the way for the rapid expansion of paramilitary units in law enforcement. The armament of American police during the 1980s – with flak jackets, helmets, military style SWAT team uniforms, armoured vehicles and high-powered AR-15 rifles, Heckler& Koch submachine guns and the adoption of aggressive enforcement tactics - coincided with a nationwide increase in violent crime that accompanied the introduction of crack cocaine to inner city communities, the evisceration of the social safety net under President Ronald Reagan, and the ongoing deindustrialization of the United States.

Charles J. Dunlap Jr., a retired Deputy Judge Advocate General for the US Air Force, identified the Pentagon’s increasing involvement in counter-narcotics missions in an influential 1992 essay entitled “The Origins of the American Military Coup”:

By 1991 the Department of Defense was spending $1.2 billion on counternarcotics crusades. Air Force surveillance aircraft were sent to track airborne smugglers; Navy ships patrolled the Caribbean looking for drug-laden vessels; and National Guardsmen were searching for marijuana caches near the borders. By 1992 “combatting” drug trafficking was formally declared a “high national security mission.

Journalist Radley Balko, whose book Rise of the Warrior Cop focuses the evolution of this trend, identified the Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act as a critical juncture in the history of American policing. Since President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law, Balko maintains that every successive president and Congress “have continued to carve holes in that law, or at least find ways around it, mostly in the name of the drug war.” As a result,“the much more widespread and problematic trend has been to make our domestic police departments more like the military,” rather than have the military adopt aspects of the civilian policing model.

Crime crackdown - or civilian?

The shining example of the hard-edge turn in American policing is the development of 'zero tolerance' policies by the New York Police Department (NYPD) in the early 1990s. Faced with a staggering homicide rate of 2,245 deaths in 1990, and only slight decreases in the next few years, newly-elected Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appointed William Bratton, then head of the NY Transit Police, as the NYPD Commissioner in January 1994.

Bratton drew heavily on the “broken windows” theory of crime developed by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, i.e. lack of attention to low-level crimes creates criminal environments that foster more serious violent crimes. Utilizing mapping software and digitized crime reports to identify high-crime neighbourhoods, Bratton then sent in saturation patrols consisting largely of the NYPD's massive recruit classes of the early 1990s to stomp out crime.

Through the use of the CompStat crime tracking software, Bratton held individual commanders to “productivity” levels regarding arrests and monitored increases or decreases in localized crime rates. Officers were given greater leeway to enforce violations of minor codes such as drinking in public, jumping the turnstile in New York City's subway system, using nuisance abatement laws to shut down problem businesses and conducting sting operations to target drug dealers.

Bratton's tenure marked the beginning of a two-decade decrease in New York City's crime rate; the aggressive strategies he implemented – and marketed with great success to other police departments in the US and abroad – have been heavily criticized as ineffective and accused of racial profiling. The current controversy over NYPD's Stop and Frisk program, a tactic Bratton favoured wherein 'suspicious' individuals - overwhelmingly black and Latino youth - are stopped, questioned and searched by police on dubious legal grounds, rose to abusive levels, and a pending federal civil rights suit over the practice may result in federal oversight of the NYPD.

Plentiful funding and equipment for Reagan's War on Drugs (both at home and abroad), with the blurring of the lines between civilian law enforcement and the military and the ascent of hardline tactics and legislation, such as mandatory sentencing minimums that exponentially increased the country's prison population, all contributed to a pervasive law enforcement perspective that tougher tactics and approaches were needed to suppress rising violence – which reached its peak in in 1991, at the height of the crack era.

The result was a literal war on black and Latino neighbuorhoods, and the incarceration of much of the male population from these neighbourhoods or direct supervision by the criminal justice system in the form of probation or parole. Save for a brief period in the mid-1990s following the Rodney King riots when 'community policing' – a collaborative law enforcement approach based on building lasting relationships with the community - received billions in federal funding through President Bill Clinton’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program , 'get tough' approaches to crime control have been the standard in American law enforcement.

Exchanging trade secrets

The militarization of American law enforcement is not only part of the physical aspect of policing, but also its modus operandi. The Counterinsurgency (COIN) model of military occupation popularized by General David Petraeus has been adopted into domestic law enforcement policy and attitude. Efforts have been made to adapt portions of this model to domestic policing, as exemplified by collaborations between personnel from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey and local police in the California farming city of Salinas to deal with chronic gang violence. Federal experts on violence and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have been assigned to assist the small Salinas Police Department with everyday policing duties.

In other areas of the country, military resources are brought to bear on regions designated “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas” (HIDTAs). These regions are separate federal entities that provide a hub for local, state and federal law enforcement to build investigations into drug trafficking organizations, often with the assistance of military personnel and equipment.

National SWAT team training exercises receive significant funding from the Department of Homeland Security and are used to build ties, observe tactics and swap trade secrets on an informal level between police from around the US and overseas. The Urban Shield competition, a massive SWAT training competition that takes place annually in the San Francisco Bay Area, brings American law enforcement into close contact with overseas units, including the Israeli Defence Forces. Urban Shield takes place in locations throughout the Bay Area, as police units engage in live-action scenarios that simulate active shooter situations, terrorist attacks and other high-risk situations.

According to Amnesty International, the United States trains at least 100,000 soldiers and police from 150 countries every year through international training facilities scattered throughout the country. The FBI came under fire in 2011 during the Egyptian revolution for the crowd control training it provided to Egyptian police through the AntiTerror Assistance Program. Former Philadelphia and Miami Police Chief John Timoney (an alumni of Bratton's NYPD) was hired in 2012 to provide crowd control training to Bahraini police – Timoney is infamous for the “Miami model”, a highly aggressive crowd control approach he unleashed on protesters during the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas summit that resulted in lawsuits alleging excessive force and unlawful arrest.

The United Kingdom has also been influenced by American-style policing – Bratton was hired as an unpaid consultant to Scotland Yard following the 2011 riots in London over Mark Duggan's killing by police. Duggan's killing was the result of an aggressive police action by Operation Trident, an armed unit aimed at countering violence and the drug trade in London's Afro-Carribean neighbourhoods. Police incorrectly suspected Duggan of carrying a handgun. Operation Trident was set up in 1998, when Britain began turning to zero tolerance to counter violence crime, at a time when the myth of the tactic's success in New York City was at its peak.

No end in sight

Recent developments indicate that policing has also adopted another core aspect of the military's mission: intelligence gathering. The NYPD's systematic surveillance towards Muslim populations in New York City and elsewhere is an alarming indication of where 'community' policing is heading; the NYPD views the city's Muslim populations as a group that warrants a more intensive form of suppression than the 'zero tolerance' tactics it rolled out in black and Latino neighborhoods.

This convergence of policing and state surveillance, while not a new trend in American history, is accelerating as defence contractors and technology firms seek to repurpose programs designed for the overseas 'battlespace' to domestic law enforcement applications. The embedding of four CIA case officers within the NYPD following 9/11 is but one example of this trend – massive defense contractors such as Palantir and Science Applications International Corporation are building data-mining programs and intelligence-sharing platforms for police to aggregate and share data and intelligence.

In mid-sized and large American cities, community policing is nothing more than lip service to an ideal that feels quaint in a post-9/11, post-Boston Marathon world, where ubiquitous surveillance technology offers law enforcement the means to track and locate suspects they would once have sought through ‘human’ intelligence. The merging of the paramilitary approach has become the new normal as American police increasingly adopted technology honed through overseas military occupations  – and what other countries will undoubtedly strive for.

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